Understanding copyright law


Any expression of an idea can be copyrighted. In practice this means that if you create a piece of writing, music or any other artistic work, you instantly become the copyright holder. You can assert your right by attaching the international copyright symbol © and the date to your work.

What works are protected by copyright law?

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides categories in which works must fall into in order to be protected by copyright. These are:

  • Original literary works: A literary work could be a poem, novel, lyrics to a song, screenplay or a script for a play
  • Original dramatic works: Dramatic works are original works that are created to be performed. A production of a play would also fall into this category. It must be a work of action, with words or music which is capable of being performed in front of an audience
  • Original musical works: Musical copyright protects the actual music of a song and not the lyrics
  • Original artistic works: Artistic works can include graphics, photos, sculptures and collages. Copyright can exist irrespective of their artistic merit, however the work must has some aesthetic appeal and must be created by an individual who has exercised his or her workmanship in order to create the work. An item made in a factory does not fall into this category as the artistic ‘craft’ element is missing, and so no copyright claim is possible in this instance
  • Film/sound recordings/broadcast: Film copyright protects recordings of moving images. Sound recording copyright protects recordings of sound whether onto tape, CD or digitally recorded. Broadcast copyright protects any transmission to the public whether via TV, satellite or radio
  • Typographical arrangements: Typographical work is how a page is laid out in a book, newspaper or journal, which must be a published edition. This allows the publisher to prevent unauthorised copying of a page

How does copyright law work?

It is important to understand that you cannot copyright an idea, but only the expression of an idea. If someone else has a similar idea to yours and then perhaps makes a film based on that idea, they have not broken your copyright, as you did not copyright your idea before them.

Also, under copyright law you cannot copyright a name or phrase as these are usually protected with a trademark. You cannot protect an industrial process under copyright law as they are usually protected with patent law.

In the UK, copyright law gives you exclusive rights to the work you have created for your entire life, and in the case of artistic works, 70 years after your death. The copyright for sound recordings lasts for 50 years.

Copyright law and intellectual property law are often used as one in the same when in fact copyright is a type of intellectual property. As copyrighted material is intellectual property, the laws that govern these rights are strong.

Copyright infringement

Breaking a copyright law can have severe penalties. If you were to do so this is referred to as an ‘infringement’. For example, if you:

  • Make illegal copies of computer software
  • Copied substantial parts of another person’s book

If you feel that copyright law has been broken in relation to your work, you can sue the person or persons that have copied your work. You will need to prove that substantial parts of your work have been copied to the court. If you believe someone has infringed on your copyright protection, see our information page on copyright infringement.

Do you have a dispute arising from a copyright issue, or are you considering the best method to protect your invention or works? Contact Law can put you in touch with an expert intellectual property lawyer who can assess the best method of protection for your case and help resolve any disputes which have already arisen. Please call us on 0800 1777 162 or complete the web-form above.

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